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Virtual Reality brought to the Web Platform

The world of Virtual Reality in 2016 feels a lot like the world of mobile in 2007: a lot of expectations around a new way to interact with users, a lot of innovations in hardware and software to make it a reality, and a lot of unknowns as to how these interactions would develop.

It played a tiny role in making the Web a better platform for mobile devices, and with the feeling that Progressive Web Apps are finally bringing us where we need to be in that space, We have been looking in the past few months at where the Web needs to be to provide at least one of the major platform for Virtual Reality experience.

Expected applications of VR to gaming and video consumption, many innovative use cases have emerged to make Virtual Reality a compelling platform for e-commerce, news, learning and discovery, communication and social inclusiveness, engineering, and many other use cases.

VR feels to me like a big new set of opportunities for creativity and expression, with its more immersive and more direct interactions. Web should be able to cater for this space of innovation.

The web comes with well- known strengths in that space:

  • As the number of headsets and other associated VR devices grows by the day, the plasticity of the open Web Platform to adapt content and services to many of devices types, varying in processing power, resolution, interactions and operating systems is no longer to demonstrate, and is certain to bring content and service providers a uniform platform on which to build.
  • Wearing a headset tends to isolate users from their external environments, there is a risk that VR experience remains limited to intense but somewhat complete type of content or applications; but the Web has proved excellent at providing an on-ramp to engaging users. We know it’s hard to see oneself immersing into a real-estate VR experience while looking for a house, starting a VR experience while browsing a particularly appealing house on a real-estate Website seems much more compelling.
  • The Web was created first and foremost to facilitate sharing, and the continued validation of the power of URLs to enable this some 25 years after its inception is a testament to the robustness and strength of that approach. VR would hardly be the first ecosystem to benefit from the reach and social effect enabled by the web.
  • As a basically open platform that anyone can use, build on and contribute to building, the web can ensure VR is not stifled by the rules and constraints of closed and proprietary platforms.

But make these strengths applicable to VR, the web unmistakably needs to provide the basic technical bricks that are necessary to build VR experiences.

Fortunately, numerous such technologies are already in place or are making good progress toward widespread development. WEBGL has provided the basic layer for 3D graphics for a number of years and has now reached widespread deployment. The Gamepad API brings necessary interfaces to the various types of devices used to navigate in virtual experience.

The Web Audio API features, among its many amazing capabilities, spatialized audio, providing a critical component to truly immersive experience .

But condemning the likelihood of projecting graphics to VR headsets, taking into account their optical and geometrical specificities, has been recently enabled experimentally via the WebVR API that Mozilla started, shortly after Google and Samsung with their respective browsers, and recently joined by Microsoft.

This crowd of APIs can easily be perceived as a steep learning curve for many Web developers, another project pushed by Mozilla, A-Frame, exemplifies the expressivity of encapsulating a lot of such APIs in Web Components. With A-Frame, a few lines of HTML- like markup suffice to create a first VR-enabled scene, including all the plumbing needed to make the experience of switching from regular browsing to the more immersive view.

Let’s all work together to make sure Web & VR grow together harmoniously.